This is the time of year when we’re reminded what America is all about as we observe that most important day — Black Friday. Actually, it has morphed into Black Thursday. We used to call it “Thanksgiving” until big retailers dragged employees away from their families and stuffing. Whatever — it’s the thread that is sewn into our national fabric, as enduring as, say, the Senate filibuster.
Oh wait, that one has just been frazzled. Is nothing about our country sacred? Truth is, this is a tradition that long predates the U.S. of A. The first recorded filibusters were droned somewhere around 60 B.C. in the Roman Senate, by Cato the Younger. Cato the Elder was his grandfather, but we digress. The kid wanted to obstruct an initiative by Julius Caesar (I am not making this up). The Roman Senate rules some 2,076 years ago required that the body adjourn for the day at dusk. Sen. Cato would simply talk until it got dark. And the rest is history.
There was no nuclear option then — no nuclear anything, for that matter. No electricity, either, which explains the darkness limit. There also were no cameras to play to, which is such a draw for our modern-day legislative warriors, like Paul the Younger and Cruz the Crass.
The members of the modern Senate, which may be an oxymoron, like to describe their upper chamber of Congress as “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.” But there’s a huge difference between deliberation and paralysis, and that’s what the abuse of the unlimited debate standard has brought us.
How many times have we all heard the story about Thomas Jefferson telling George Washington that the Senate was supposed to be the “saucer” that cooled the hot tea of legislation reflecting the passions of the times? You can believe that tale or not, but clearly Jeff didn’t consider the possibility that it wouldn’t be tea, but the tea party that pushed things so out of control that it would be necessary to put some curbs in place. It’s one thing to allow a beverage to lose some heat; it’s another to let it freeze. That’s exactly what’s been happening. The well-intentioned principles long in place were being corrupted by modern-day opportunists whose agenda is only obstruction — that and running for president by railing against the current president.
Chances are that Aesculapius, the Roman god of healing, didn’t have to deal with insurance companies, so there was no Caesarcare to focus the rage of political opposition, nor is there any record that there were Birthers among Julius Caesar’s opponents. That would have been too absurd. Yes, we’ve come a long way in two millennia.
Harry the Roughshod has run over the ancient barriers to getting anything done. Now the longtime members of the club are sniffing that stifling the filibuster will turn the Senate into a House of Representatives, which they disdain as the House of Riffraff. That’s hyperbole. No group could be that rowdy. Besides, there are countless ways to use the Senate rules to bottle things up. A wide variety of laborious ways for members to drag things out and make their arguments in the old-fashioned, genteel ways. The House is a different animal, or perhaps a better description is animal house. Good manners rarely get in the way, and members can say about anything they want, as long as they do it quickly. So when senators complain that they’re becoming more like what they scornfully dismiss as “The Other Body,” that’s serious. But at least the lower House can waste time in a hurry. After all, that’s where the right-wingers who control things have voted about 40 times to repeal Obamacare.
The rest of us look askance at all this. Or we will, once we leave the mall.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.